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  • "On a Wet Rock in the Atlantic":J. M. Synge and Ethnographies of the Irish Revival
  • John Brannigan (bio)

Dec. 1. I have been reading Herbert Spencer and my creed is now very simple. Humanity has evolved from the conditions of the world, and will return to the nothing it has come from. Each separate life is but a ripple on the waves,—a blade of grass on the roadside. For those who fail, there is no hope. They are like the dead leaves in autumn, blown here and there before their final dissolution. In my useless agony I am only hurtful to my fellows. Why should I endure it?1

John Synge's "Étude Morbide," written around 1899, takes the form of "an imaginary portrait," and thus does not pretend to provide autobiographical statements of any authority.2 There are shades here of the Bohemian student who had spent much of the 1890s in Germany, Italy, and France studying European culture, but within a few years Synge had established himself as the most gifted playwright of the Irish literary revival, before his early death from Hodgkin's disease in 1909. The author of Riders to the Sea (1904) and The Playboy of the Western World (1907), Synge's transformation was rooted in his immersion in the language and folklore of the West of Ireland, particularly the Aran Islands. However, in reflecting the impact of evolutionary debates about humanity and degeneration upon the sensibility of the artist, "Étude Morbide" provides some indications of how we might contextualize Synge's encounters with the primitive and the aboriginal on the Aran Islands in relation to his contemporaneous preoccupations with the legacies of Darwinism.3 Synge's choice of [End Page 329] metaphors for the figure of bare humanity are conventional—"a ripple on the waves … a blade of grass on the roadside"—yet distinctly apt given the propensity in his writings for the sea and the roadside as topographical markers of marginal modernity. Similarly, "those who fail" are likened, somewhat predictably, to "dead leaves in autumn, blown here and there before their final dissolution," an image resonant with W. B. Yeats's later reference to "those our civilization must reject," and only ameliorated by Synge's identification of himself with the doomed failures of humanity.4 The work to which Synge refers, Spencer's Principles of Psychology (published in 1855, four years prior to Darwin's The Origin of the Species), argues that "life attains to more and more perfect forms" through an evolutionary process in which the "unfit" fail to survive, and the "fit" progress more and more towards an ideal or archetype.5 It is a "creed" which the artist finds incontestable, but which engenders despondency. At least on a personal level, however, relief from this despondency lies at the margins of modernity:

May 5. I am in the country at last—near the end of Finisterre. Since I came here my daily readings of the saints and Stoics have lost their interest, and I live simply and naturally as the peasants do. This ordeal I have passed through has left me without a trace of apprehension. My system saved me, yet when I look back on it now, it seems a childish escapade. I have my fiddle here and I make the peasants dance in the evenings. My skin shivers while I play to see that in spite of the agony of the world there are still men and women joyous enough to leap and skip with exultation.

(Synge, "Étude Morbide," 32–33)

As James Knapp argues, Synge's The Aran Islands (1907) depicts his encounters with the "primitivism" of the islanders in much the same terms, but without "the tone of weary decadence" notable in his characterization of the artist in Brittany.6 The narrative tone may be refined and clarified, yet the relationship between these cultures "on the edge" of modernity and evolutionary discourses of primitivism, degeneration, and civilization is substantially the same. When Synge turns to Brittany and Aran as sources of cultural renewal it is not as "wild places" beyond the reaches of modernity, but as liminal spaces in an increasingly powerful transatlantic economy, capable...


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